When it comes to climate change, politics overrides religious views
ELIZABETH EISENSTADT-EVANS | COLUMNIST
EDITOR’S NOTE: Last week, Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, issued a proposed rule that would repeal the Clean Power Plan, an Obama-era effort to limit carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants.
If you are a Christian who has ever engaged another believer on the topic of climate change, odds are you have heard of Katharine Hayhoe.
For years, the increasingly prominent Texas Tech University climate scientist has occupied a unique position, building bridges between the scientific community, which overwhelmingly affirms that human-caused climate change is a threat to the planet, and conservative American evangelicals, many of whom are skeptical of science in general and climate science in particular.
Married to a professor of linguistics (and former climate change skeptic) who also is a pastor, Hayhoe (a native of Canada) seems to find the time to be everywhere, including Facebook and Twitter.
Her bi-weekly “Global Weirding” videos, delivered in a positive, approachable style, tackle many of the myths and questions that dog the topic of climate change (though debate in the scientific community was essentially over a long time ago).
Approximately two years ago, I interviewed Hayhoe for a column.
In light of the hurricanes that have inflicted massive damage and loss of life in the Caribbean and the United States, I contacted her again.
How were the storms that hit the Gulf Coast, Florida and the Caribbean altered by our warming climate?
The bottom line is that a changing climate exacerbates our natural risks.
If we want to know why we should care about climate change, all we have to do is look around and see what types of weather extremes we are already vulnerable to in the places where we live.
If we live in Washington or Oregon, it might be wildfires.
In the Gulf Coast, one of our biggest concerns is hurricanes.
Climate change doesn’t necessarily produce a drought or a hurricane, but it amplifies the risks associated with naturally-occurring events.
Climate change exacerbates the risks associated with hurricanes in at least three different ways:
First, in a warmer world, more water evaporates, so when a storm comes along, there is more water vapor available, which increases the amount of rainfall and the intensity of the rainfall associated with a given storm.
Reason two is sea level rise.
As warmer water expands and land-based ice is melting, more water behind the storm surges makes storm surges stronger.
Reason three, over 90 percent of the extra energy being trapped inside the earth’s climate system by the heat-trapping gases we produce is going into the ocean.
With a warmer ocean, more energy is available to hurricanes, because they get their energy from warm ocean water.
We don’t expect climate change to significantly alter the number of hurricanes, but we do expect that, in a warmer world, on average, there will be more rainfall and stronger storm surges associated with hurricanes, and likely more powerful hurricanes than there would be otherwise.
Why do people expect to see more hurricanes as a proof of the reality of climate change?
In years like 2017, and in 2005, which is the last time we had so many hurricanes, many people wonder or even assume that climate change is causing more hurricanes to form.
But the reality is that when we look at the long-term numbers, we don’t see any change in the frequency of hurricanes.
Some years are bad years, other years have relatively few storms.
Looking to one year as proof of a long-term trend is what I think of as “the ink-blot syndrome.” We humans are always looking for patterns in the world around us, but often we are doing so based on inadequate information.
This desire to discern patterns from the chaos of life is a natural part of the human condition.
It makes me think of what Jesus says (in John 4:48):
“Unless you people see signs and wonders,” Jesus told him, “you will never believe” when, in fact, he’s already standing right in front of them.
Is it too late to mitigate the effects of climate change?
Yes, and no.
A certain amount of change is inevitable.
It’s as if we’ve been smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for 30 years.
We can’t expect to see no effect.
There’s all the difference in the world, though, between a future where we continue to depend on fossil fuels and a future where we transition rapidly to clean energy.
There is still a possibility of avoiding the most widespread dangerous impacts if we act now. That’s what I talk about in my Global Weirding video, “it’s too late to do anything about climate change, right?”
When I have heard your talks or read your speeches, you sound more optimistic than many other scientists.
Fear won’t motivate us to act long-term. For long-term, sustained action, we need hope. If we give up hope, we won’t be able to fix this problem.
That’s why I spend so much time looking for (examples) of hope, of people making a difference. If we don’t have hope for a better future, then yes —it is too late.
What changes have you seen among Christians since you began to speak out?
How is it that you are changing evangelical minds on this issue where others before you have been unsuccessful?
When it comes to our opinions about climate change, what matters most is our political affiliation.
The most concerned group in the U.S. today is Hispanic Catholics. And the least concerned? White Catholics — with white evangelicals right behind them.
Don’t all Catholics have the same Pope, and isn’t he very concerned about climate change?
And so these findings highlight how it isn’t where we go to church on Sunday — or not — that really matters when it comes to forming our opinions on climate change. For many of us, our political affiliation takes priority in writing our statement of beliefs today.
What does rejecting the science of climate change have to do with our politics?
Despite the “sciencey-sounding” objections we hear all the time — “it’s just a natural cycle,” they say, or “scientists haven’t been studying this long enough to be sure” — the real reason why most people are saying it’s not real is because they want to avoid action. We’ve been told that acting on climate requires the government telling us what type of car to drive or how to set our thermostat or even ruining the economy and threatening our personal liberties. That isn’t true at all. There are libertarian and free-market solutions to climate change, in addition to policy solutions. Which one should we choose? That’s the conversation we should be having.
Have other Christians who are scientists joined you?
Many of my fellow scientists have reached out in the past few years to tell me they support what I am doing and, in some cases, they even share my faith. But overall, from the Christian community, the reaction has been more negative than positive. The number of Christians who regularly attack me each week is depressing. But this makes me treasure those who support me even more. For example, the Christian conservation organization — A Rocha International — has invited me to give the John Stott London Lecture in London in November, on “Climate and Faith in the Public Arena.” John Stott was a famous Anglican theologian and thought leader in the evangelical world who passed away several years ago. I am incredibly honored to be giving this lecture in the church where he served for so many years.
What can a concerned Christian citizen do in his or her congregation to launch a discussion on climate change?
What we should not do is come in with a bunch of scientific facts and arguments in order to pick a fight or focus on what divides us. Instead, start a conversation on what unites us: that we’ve been given this amazing world by God, who loves us and who has made us into people who are concerned about the poor and about those who are suffering in this world — suffering that is being exacerbated by a changing climate today. We can find common ground when we share from the heart. This approach is exemplified in a sermon I gave earlier this year at an evangelical church near Philadelphia, called “How climate change affects the poor,” and by a talk I gave at Pepperdine University, a Christian college in California, called “Loving our global neighbor.”
Elizabeth Eisenstadt-Evans is a freelance writer and nonparochial Episcopalian priest.
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